The school inspectorate in England, Ofsted, has faced criticism recently following the death of headteacher Ruth Perry. According to her family, Perry’s death was a “direct result” of the pressure resulting from the Ofsted inspection process which resulted in her school being judged as “inadequate”.
This has sparked debate about whether the current Ofsted framework should be changed. Ofsted chief inspector, Amanda Spielman, rejected calls to halt inspections. But the Ofsted inspection system does not have to work in the way it currently does. There isn’t strong evidence to back up the Ofsted model – and our research shows that there are alternative systems.
The current schools’ watchdog Ofsted was created in 1992. Since then, Ofsted has undergone changes to its framework, but a key mechanism Ofsted has consistently used to raise standards is that of punishment and reward.
As part of this system, school inspection grades are awarded and made public and inspection reports are made public. Sanctions can be recommended that could lead to school closures. As part of the accountability system, league tables of examination results are made public in England.
This can be stressful for teachers and senior managers. The aim is a marketised system, in which parents choose to send their children to the good schools and avoid the bad schools. This is intended to lead to good schools thriving and bad ones dwindling.
We took part in a cross-European study which ran between 2011 and 2014 and looked at how school inspections were carried out in this period in the Netherlands, Sweden, England, Ireland, Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland.
Results from this study showed that inspectorates in Ireland, Austria and Switzerland did not make use of sanctions as a mechanism to improve standards.
Inspectorates in Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria and Switzerland did not make inspection reports public. The systems in Sweden, Austria, Ireland and much of Switzerland did not publish outcomes of examination results, and these countries did not have thresholds for judging schools as failing or not. In contrast, England uses every one of these characteristics.
While this research concluded some time ago, Ofsted remains a particularly pressurised inspection system, and other countries continue to do things differently.
To consider another example, Finland is widely considered to have one of the best education systems in the world and has no inspection system and no league tables.
What’s more, there isn’t clear evidence that Ofsted raises standards in terms of educational achievement. The National Audit Office has questioned whether Ofsted can provide value for money until it has more evidence on its impact.
Research carried out since the 1990s has attempted to measure the impact of Ofsted on GCSE attainment using varying levels of sophistication. Findings are mixed and inconclusive. Some show positive impacts, while a number have found Ofsted had a negative effect on GCSE results following inspection.
In fact, it’s not clear that systems, such as Ofsted, which are intended to improve educational standards have any significant benefit. A research study published in 2020 looked at student test scores to assess the impact of educational reforms on student achievement. The study argues that educational standards in affluent countries such as England are actually stable over time – and not affected significantly by improvement strategies or reforms.
Even if there was clear evidence on the impact of highly pressurised systems in raising standards, our research showed pressurised school inspections can lead to unintended side effects. These include a narrowing of the curriculum to focus on what the inspection system considers important, and an increase in “teaching to the test” strategies.
England continues to face a crisis in teacher recruitment and retention, while many teachers have spoken of leaving the profession as a result of the pressure created by Ofsted inspections.
We should question whether these pressurised inspection mechanisms should be used without first thoroughly investigating their impact on the wellbeing of teachers and school managers.
There is no reason why Ofsted could not change the high-stakes nature of inspections – in particular elements such as the delivery of inspection grades. Inspections could still go ahead, including in areas such as safeguarding, just without the pressurised aspects that may cause more harm than good.
Author Bios: Karen Jones is Assistant Professor in the School of Education, Joe O’Hara is Professor of Education, and Martin Brown is Head of School of Policy and Practice, Co-Director: EQI The Centre for Evaluation Quality and Inspection, DCU Institute of Education, Ireland all at Dublin City University